Enraged Indonesians are the latest to make their feelings known about the anti-Islam film produced by an American troublemaker with an ax to grind. Indonesians hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta on Monday Sept. 17, protesting the “Innocence of Muslims” movie that sparked Middle East violence last Tuesday over the insults lobbed at the Prophet Muhammad in the crude, low-budget video.
Meanwhile, Coptic Christian leaders in the U.S. are distancing themselves from the controversy, saying that filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (aka Sam Bacile), a convicted felon, is in no way representative of mainstream Coptic Orthodox faithful. The Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of America stated on Friday that it rejects any allegation that the Coptic community contributed in any way to the production of this film.
Nearly two dozen countries have now joined the fray—including Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Bangladesh, Sudan, Qatar, Kuwait, Indonesia and Iraq. The most unfortunate, tragic part is the loss of life that this film has precipitated, when four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in Libya during the violent protests.
Ditching the dysfunctional
No doubt, American civil liberties, specifically, freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression, played a role in the viral spread of this offensive production. It is precisely at these times that we're all tempted to vilify the culture that has allowed ugly, provocative propaganda to be created, let alone distributed to the world at large. In that way, we're no better than the filmmakers of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, who cranked out anti-American pieces that painted our country in an equally insulting light. Our freedom of speech doesn't exempt us from responsible citizenship, nor does it permit yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theatre.
So now what? Do we just shrug our shoulders and let the madness continue? Or do we accept some of the burden of holding each other to higher standards? The Coptic Orthodox are right to distance themselves, saying that Bacile, who may have shared an ethnic heritage with their faith community, is certainly not one of them in any other way. But, at the same time, perhaps they also need to introspect about what has happened, and do more than simply ditch a dysfunctional troublemaker from their midst.
Bacile needs to be held accountable for the violence he has fostered through his film. Obviously, U.S. civil authorities will be doing what they can to bring him to justice. Unfortunately, the same American system that Bacile took advantage of to make his movie could also function to prolong the legal process and also potentially get him off with a reduced sentence. If he had been caught and convicted in the Middle East, a death sentence would probably have been the immediate result. One wonders whether extradition is a possibility in this case. Let the punishment fit the crime, some would say.
A faith response
However, we're also reminded of the words in our own Bible, in which our prophet, Jesus, tells us to forgive 70 times 7, instead of continuing the ancient “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” code of the old world. Also, “let he (or she) who is without blame cast the first stone.” It seems that Americans who vilified and insulted Japanese, Germans, Vietnamese, and others in their own war propaganda efforts decades ago are hardly so innocent that they can stand to judge another when it comes to cross-cultural relations.
That doesn't mean we just say, “tut-tut, what a shame,” and go on without addressing the deeper problems. We will have to wrestle with what our faith teaches us, versus what the American civil justice system (or the Islamic justice system, for that matter) might want to do. We will have to examine our own consciences, and determine what the appropriate response should be, given the murky depths of this mess, which seems to be growing more frenzied and violent with each passing day.
And, we will have to be willing to take a fresh look at what freedom really means—not only how to protect and preserve it, but also to assure that similar tragic, life-threatening travesties of freedom do not occur in the future.